'The 5th Wave': Film Review

Gets the job done, if not particularly well.

Chloe Grace Moretz fights an alien invasion in this adaptation of Rick Yancey's sci-fi best-seller.

Another week, another plucky teenage girl with the fate of the world on her shoulders, buffeted by smoldering glances from two strong, yet sensitive, young men. Adapted from Rick Yancey’s 2013 novel, The 5th Wave stars Chloe Grace Moretz as Cassie Sullivan, a high school student whose world is upended when aliens invade. If that sounds tantalizingly like a retread of the sci-fi blockbuster that Moretz's character headlined in Clouds of Sils Maria, the new film is both more engaging and just as generic as that movie-within-a-movie. Director J Blakeson (behind the camera for the first time since 2009’s drum-tight The Disappearance of Alice Creed) might be making franchise bait, but he exhibits a relatively restrained reliance on spectacle, and the screenplay by Jeff Pinkner, Susannah Grant and Akiva Goldsman is light on the aphoristic earnestness that bogged down the most recent Hunger Games, or last year’s Goldsman-penned Insurgent.

Cassie is the kind of girl who gets home from a party and ducks her head around her parents’ door so they know she’s made curfew. Her Dad (Ron Livingston) gives her an appreciative thumbs-up, and she goes to say goodnight to her little brother (Transparent’s Zackary Arthur) by serenading him to sleep. The idyll is short-lived. Everything changed, Cassie tells us in a voiceover, when an alien craft appeared in the sky.

Soon after, an electromagnetic pulse takes out the world’s power — the first phase. Next come floods, then avian flu, then a ground invasion. All this is condensed by the film into a short flashback as prelude. Cassie and her brother narrowly escape the rushing waters of a burst dam at home in Ohio, while coastal cities suffer the worst of it. A montage of computer-generated tidal waves smashing into Miami and the London Bridge and up office stairwells is terrifying and tossed off, as though Blakeson is in a hurry to get the apocalypse out of the way and on with the story.

When the bird flu hits, Cassie’s best friend is quarantined at the local football field, never to be heard from again. Soon the family is strapping packs to their back and abandoning their house, which seems to be by-the-course in movies like this, though surely it would be most people’s last move. They lob in to a nearby campsite turned tent-city, where Cassie’s father gives her a gun. “Nowhere is safe anymore,” he tells her.

Before long, a reliably inscrutable Liev Schreiber rolls in at the head of a phalanx of tanks. He entreats parents to put their children on buses so they can be taken away to a secure location. In the most contrived narrative transition in the film, Cassie gets off the bus when her little brother insists she find his teddy bear. She’s promptly left in the dust, as the tyke wails on the back seat.

Taken to an army base and given the nickname Nugget, the boy is enlisted to fight the invaders in a squad led by his sister’s old crush, Ben Parish (Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson). They’re joined by Ringer, a tough cookie who was kicked out of her last unit for disciplinary issues, played with scene-stealing relish by Maika Monroe (It Follows). She’s particularly memorable next to Moretz, who has always made for a convincingly scrappy teenager but is something of a blank slate as the film’s heroine, with line readings pitched at a level of panicked desperation that never really varies.

Their task of defending the planet against the imminent fifth wave is complicated by the discovery that “the others,” as the aliens are called throughout, can assume human form. This wrinkle is the pic's savviest, allowing Blakeson to emphasize the personal and earthbound. There are plenty of shoot-outs in The 5th Wave, but no interminable aerial combat.

Meanwhile, Cassie is tramping through the woods, en route to the military base to reclaim her brother. She’s saved from enemy snipers by Evan Walker, a mysterious farm boy played by Alex Roe, a pretty, very earnest English actor in the Robert Pattinson-Theo James tradition. It’s rare for almost all of a movie’s clangers to be given to one character, but Roe gets thrown the lot. Cassie wakes up in Evan’s farmhouse after having been shot, and is naturally suspicious of her benefactor. He calms her nerves by telling her, “I couldn’t save my parents, but I could save you."

This middle section of the film is the saggiest, weighed down by a leaden romance that seems all too familiar, but it picks up again when Cassie and Ben team up to rescue Nugget from under the nose of Schreiber’s conniving Colonel Vosch. In a sequence sustained seamlessly by editor Paul Rubell, the kids stick it to the adults and strike out on their own.

If part of YA’s appeal is that it provides a fantasy of independence from parents at a time when young people find it deferred longer than ever, Enrique Chediak’s glossless digital photography locates The 5th Wave very much in the here and now, investing it with the same earthiness he gave 2014’s The Maze Runner.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, GK Films, LStar Capital, Living Films, Material Pictures
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Nick Robinson, Ron Livingston, Zackary Arthur, Maggie Siff, Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello, Maika Monroe, Alex Roe
Director: J Blakeson
Writers: Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner
Producers: Tobey Maguire, Graham King, Matthew Plouffe, Lynn Harris
Executive producer: Richard Middleton
Music: Henry Jackman
Director of photography: Enrique Chediak
Production designer: Jon Billington
Costume designer: Sharen Davis
Editor: Paul Rubell
Set decorator: Frank Galline
Casting director: Francine Maisler

Not rated, 112 minutes